Aida Sanchez sits on a donated couch in her tiny new apartment and is filled with gratitude and dread. As she looks around the unpacked living room and talks about painting its few pieces of furniture with bright Mexican colors, she grabs at her braid and her eyes fill with tears. Aida says she’s thankful that she and her daughter, Heidi, have a home again, but she worries about the next time the rug is yanked from under their feet. “It was traumatic,” said Aida of their last four months living in an RV and dodging cops, angry homeowners, and violent street people. “We lived in fear.”
Priced out of a Dario Pini apartment by a rent raise in June, Aida, 22-year-old Heidi (who is diagnosed with severe autism and epilepsy), and Heidi’s service dog struggled to find another place to live, even with a Section 8 voucher. They stayed at a shelter for a little while but had to leave because Heidi’s late-night seizures were too loud for the other guests. Enrolled in the county’s In-Home Supportive Services program, Aida was able to scrape together enough cash to buy an RV, and the little family started bouncing from curb to curb. Heidi seemed to like their mobile home, and Aida always tried to park it in places with a good view, but life in the cramped space was hard.
Not long before this, Aida had waged and won a bitter conservatorship battle with the county. She had briefly left Heidi in the care of a family member; when that family member was arrested, Heidi, who has the mental capacity of a 3-year-old and is unable to speak, was taken away. She spent the next 16 months heavily medicated in a residential facility, an experience that traumatized her to the point that she stared biting her hands and pulling out her hair. Aida was relentless in her fight to get Heidi back, but the ordeal left her exhausted and angry. “She’s my sweetheart, my companion,” Aida said. “She’s everything to me.”
One day while they were still living in the RV, Aida broke down as she pushed Heidi along a downtown sidewalk in her wheelchair. The police were called, but rather than drop the hammer, the responding officer promised to help and led the two to a nearby Housing Authority office. Case managers connected Aida with the city’s Safe Parking Program and, after sharing her story with a private landlord, found the Castillo Street two-bedroom the pair moved into last month. And while she says she “feels complete right now” with “a roof, food, and my daughter,” Aida can’t help but feel anxious about what the future will hold.
She pulls out a Santa Barbara Independent news clipping from years back that details how she, Heidi, and Heidi’s older brother — along with 32 other tenants — were forced out of their Wentworth Avenue rentals right before Christmas after city inspectors discovered that the property’s corner-cutting landlord had installed “dangerously amateurish” electrical wiring. They were left on the street for a time and had been homeless once before. “I don’t want to go through this cycle again,” Aida said. “What’s going to happen in another 10 years?”
Born and raised in Mexico, Aida moved to Santa Barbara when she was 19 years old. She went to school to become a dental assistant, cleaned houses, married and divorced, and raised her two kids. Over the years and in recent months, fate has dealt her no shortage of hardships, and she’s considered moving to San Diego for its more reasonable rental market and bigger autism community. But she’s determined to stay and wants to help those in less-fortunate positions figure out how to survive. “This happened to me, so I can help other people it happens to,” she said, explaining she’d like to one day start a supportive nonprofit. Her advice in the meantime? “Save money,” she said. “You don’t know when you’ll need it. Rents are crazy, and if you’re low-income, you can all of the sudden find yourself homeless.”
Santa Barbara, with its “five-star hotels, fancy restaurants, and opulent residences,” welcomes the cheap work of minorities, but the city doesn’t want those laborers to live within its borders, Aida goes on. “I’ll never give up,” she said. Instead of moving away, “I’d rather be an activist and work hard with the community so that we all can have decent, affordable housing and so future generations won’t have to leave their hometown.” But right now, Aida says she feels hope when Heidi smiles and is blessed to have a kitchen to make them a Thanksgiving dinner. “I feel like I should get on my knees and thank God,” she said. “I have too much.”